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Quantity, Not Quality

Sure, you have a novel in you, but can you write 50,000 words in thirty days? Join Chris Baty's Nanowrimo project and find out.

For some people November means a slow descent into winter. For others it's turkey and football. For a growing band of giddy writers, November is synonymous with late nights, bad prose and group therapy.

Their guru is 31-year-old Kansas City native Chris Baty, who dreamed up an absurd literary exercise while working for an obscure San Francisco dot-com in the midst of the late-nineties boom. The task Baty and friends set for themselves was to write 50,000 words in 30 days, no matter how embarrassing the result. Now a freelance writer in Oakland, he blames the masochistic project on the era: "There was a certain permissiveness and encouragement in the Bay Area. There was no such thing as a bad idea, and 26-year-olds were leading the charge."

Like other survivors from that era that grew from a goofy lark (EBay, anyone?), Baty's bad idea caught on and achieved cult status. Now known as National Novel Writing Month, the November-long exercise is a worldwide free-for-all in which anyone can take up the challenge.

Nanowrimo, as it's known among acolytes, has grown over its six years into present form -- an extensive Web site, local gatherings, a fundraiser for Cambodian libraries, and 40,000 participants -- thanks to mostly to Baty, who exudes the energy of a motivational speaker who's all too happy to share the big cosmic joke with his followers.

"People say, 'Oh great, just what the world needs is another crappy manuscript,' but from my perspective, that is what the world needs," Baty says. "The alternative is becoming a culture of passive consumption watching TV, or going to see other people's movies. A lot of these books are personal miracles, and [Nanowrimo] teaches people that they can take part in this great pageant of culture and entertainment."

Participation is a big part of the attraction. Come November, the Web site becomes a social scene, a Friendster for writers, with all sorts of message threads, profiles, and excerpts from the writers' works in progress. The message boards are an easy tool for procrastination, even a little flirtation, but writers also use them heavily to post notes of encouragement and queries for information. Here's a typical one, from a writer with the pen name "Samantha Storey" whose main character is a woman who gives up her new child for adoption: "Would she pump to relieve the pressure at the beginning? Or would she just let her milk 'dry up'? What sort of language do I use here? Do people say 'dry up' or is there something else? Would it hurt? How long does this process take?" (Other queries include hawk noises, airport security, and vampire stereotypes.)

In the second week of the month, the moral support section fills up as writers hit the toughest stretch. "In week one you're running on adrenaline, you become a literary celebrity, the person behind the coffee shop counter asks you how your novel is going," says Baty. "But by week two the slog sets in. You have to come up with something resembling a plot. If you're writing a novel at a more reasonable pace, you may not reach that point until month six. It's a little daunting to hit that crossroads right away."

If Baty sounds like he's got it down to a science, well, not quite. But he's got it down in a book. No Plot? No Problem was just published by Chronicle Books, and instead of writing 50,000 words this month with the rest of the Nanowriters, he's on a promotional tour.

Like Baty, the book -- a guide to surviving the four weeks of Nanowrimo -- is relentlessly upbeat but avoids motivational pollyanna-ism with the sly recognition that you, exalted Nanowrimo participant, are likely to produce a load of crap. (Two participants have gone on to publication, however.)

If it were a scheme to squeeze twenty bucks out of every sucker who fancied himself a novelist, the overcaffeinated rah-rah talk would ring hollow. But it doesn't, and Baty's main message -- stop making excuses and write -- is one that writers of all calibers need to hear from time to time. By forcing everyone to lock the nagging voices in the closet, Nanowrimo opens up a window of loopy, anarchic possibility that says to detractors, if you don't like it, you don't have to do it -- very similar to another Bay Area-founded cult phenomenon:

"I came back from Burning Man in 1999 with the sense that when you get people together and it's OK to make mistakes and live outside the confines of normal life, that's fine for a short period of time," says Baty. "Nanowrimo is a temporal space where people are allowed to believe the impossible that there's a book in them and it can tumble out of them."